Mind over mountain

As adaptive adventure sports boom in the West, a paralyzed athlete pushes his limits.

  • Jon Arnow crutch-hikes, skis and kayaks around Lake Tahoe, using specialized equipment that he either designed or helped manufacturers create for disabled athletes like himself.

    Ryan Salm
  • Jon Arnow pushes the limits of adaptive adventure sports.

    Ryan Salm
  • Jon Arnow crutch-walks – or crawls, when necessary – up a trail in North Canyon during a recent Grand Canyon rafting trip.

    Jon Arnow
  • Jon Arnow ascends the Atlantic Ocean Wall on the southeast face of Yosemite's El Capitan, in 1997, before the skiing accident that almost killed him.

    Jon Arnow
  • Arnow in the hospital after his accident, his wife, Debbie, standing by, center.

    Jon Arnow
  • A later X-ray revealing the steel rods and screws that were installed in 2008 to support his spine.

    Jon Arnow
  • Jon Arnow, paddling on Lake Tahoe, learned the hard way about the special equipment he needs for kayaking.

    Ryan Salm

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Disabled Sports USA now serves as an umbrella organization for 109 chapters, many of which run year-round, offering more than 40 sports to clients with cognitive and physical disabilities. The military continues to have an outsize effect on disabled athletics as well. Veterans represent a small portion of the active disabled population; even though Disabled Sports USA recruits directly from military hospitals, veterans typically account for fewer than 5 percent of its 60,000 annual clients. But each war nonetheless drives participants, and dollars, toward adaptive sports. It can be tough to wrestle top-notch prosthetics – let alone recreation gear – from private insurers, but the Department of Veterans Affairs is more generous. For manufacturers in what is, at best, a niche market, its contracts create "a buying power that is second to none," Bauer says. The VA and other government agencies also support innovation in adaptive technology.

Sit-skiing gear was rudimentary until 1985, when a paraplegic Stanford-educated engineer, Peter Axelson, invented the monoski – a molded seat designed to clip into a ski binding. By the time Arnow began relearning his turns at Alpine Meadows, paraplegic skiers could keep pace with their able-bodied partners. Modern monoskiers cinch themselves in with knee and chest straps and wield light outriggers for balance. Aggressive shock absorbers buffer against bumps; some companies sell custom seats. Says Cahow, the Craig Hospital therapist: "You gotta have a good fit for a butt, just like you'd want a good fit for your ski boot."

Arnow started monoskiing hard. "Jon took to it like nobody I've ever seen," says Bob Vogel, one of his instructors, a freestyle skier and stuntman who injured his spine in a ski crash in 1985. "He was skiing all the super-extreme terrain." Arnow used the widest skis he could, and relearned how to arc through powder, where outriggers drag in the deep snow, and monoskiers must balance and turn largely without them. Once, he flew back to British Columbia, chartered a helicopter and thudded into the Selkirk Mountains to carve turns in spring conditions.

Again, his passion came with a price: Monoskis can be hard on the spine. Their shock absorbers can't cushion the largest jolts – such as the jumps Arnow took from cornices – and when the suspension bottoms out, a skier's sitz bones and spine absorb the force. "You get this violent pounding," says Vogel, who reinjured his own spine while monoskiing. By 2009, Arnow had crushed vertebrae above and below his original injury. His surgeons fused his spine from his pelvis to the middle of his back, removing his ability to bend at the waist and making it impossible for him to fold into a monoski. Years earlier, Vogel and others had advised him to take it easy, to preserve what mobility he still possessed. Arnow saw this as pessimism. "Come on. Let's go. Use it up," he had said. "You're going to fall apart sooner or later."

The surgery was a mixed blessing. His original accident had left him bent at a 30-degree angle from the waist, making it hard for him to balance on his feet. Now, for the first time in seven years, he stood upright. He could crutch-hike.

Most media coverage of adaptive sports follows a predictable plotline: An athlete suffers an accident, struggles with his injury, and overcomes it. It's a story for which Arnow has little patience. Triumphant narratives don't square with his experience, which is riddled with setbacks. His pain has never ebbed. He has tried many remedies – opiates, acupuncture, massage and meditation – but he has come to believe that the best solution may be a simpler one. "You can talk about drugs all you want, but it turns out that distraction is what keeps your spirits up to go another day," he says. "And the outdoors stuff has been my great distraction."

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